I've never been a big fan of New Year's Eve. It's usually too cold to go out, and there's too much pressure to have fun. But when my friend Suzanne Alavi invited me to celebrate the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, this year, I jumped at the chance.
Nowruz is everything Western New Year's is not. It's a family event, and an opportunity to celebrate the coming of spring. The two-week holiday begins at the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator. This year, the equinox occurs today at about 7:30 a.m.
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Nowruz traditions date back more than 3,000 years. The first -- and Suzanne's least favorite -- is the annual spring clean when Iranians scrub their homes from top to bottom.
The most distinctive tradition, however, is the ceremonial table setting called sofreh-ye haft-sinn, or the seven-dishes setting. The number seven has been sacred in Iran for thousands of years and the dishes -- each of which starts with the Persian letter sinn -- represent the keys to a happy life. Sabzeh, lentil or wheat sprouts, represent rebirth; samanu, a sweet pudding, is joy; sib, an apple, is the embodiment of health and beauty; senjed, the fruit of the lotus tree, symbolizes love; and so on. In addition, many Iranians also place a mirror, a hyacinth flower, a gold coin, a book of poetry by Persian master Hafez, and a bowl of goldfish on the table. Looking at the goldfish at the turn of the new year is believed to bring good fortune.
For all the ceremony, Nowruz is a relaxed affair. In Iran, the family gathers at the exact moment of the equinox -- even when it's in the middle of the night. Here, families gather for an evening meal. A traditional menu includes ash-e reshteh, a hearty noodle soup; sabzi polow ba mahi, fresh herb rice and fish; and kuku ye sabzi, a lighter-than-air herb souffle. As with everything at Nowruz, many foods have meaning: Eating the noodles symbolically helps to unravel life's knotty problems, for example. For dessert, we had Persian pastries, which don't officially represent anything but are a good reminder of how sweet a new year's celebration can be.
Sabzi polow ba mahi (Herbed Rice with Fish)
3 cups long-grain basmati rice
4 tablespoons salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives or scallions
1 cup fresh dill, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cups fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
1 cup cilantro, chopped
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter or vegetable oil